by Lynn on February 25, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Doug Wright
Based on the documentary Grey Gardens by David and Albert Maysles.
Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Ann Hodges
Musical direction by Shelley Hamson
Choreographed by Stephanie Graham
Set by Camellia Koo
Costumes by Alex Amini
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Sound by John Lott
Cast: Matthew Brown
Amariah Faulkner
Tim Funnell
Kira Guloien
Lisa Horner
Hanna Levinson
Jeff Lillico
Nicola Lipman
Victor A. Young.

A nifty production about those fascinating, loopy Beale girls.

Note: I saw this at the final preview.

The Story. This is based on the documentary entitled Grey Gardens created in the mid-seventies by brothers David and Albert Maysles, about Edith Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie). They were respectively the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

The Beales came from money. They had pretentions to be famous Broadway stars. Mother and daughter were always vying for attention when it came to their singing talents, with Big Edie being more aggressive than her daughter, Little Edie.

While the documentary focused on what became of the mother-daughter duo (they wound up penniless in their run-down 32 room Hampton mansion, with 52 cats, flees and other vermin), the musical gives them a back story.

In 1941 it was purported that Little Edie was to marry Joseph Kennedy Jr. There was to be a big engagement bash at the Beale’s mansion called Grey Gardens, in the Hamptons. Big Edie intended to sing. Little Edie didn’t want her to. Little Edie thought she could have a career in show business in spite of being married. Joseph Jr. had other ideas. Then he found out that Little Edie had a reputation of being ‘popular’ with men. He also found out that Mr. Beale had left Big Edie and was getting a Mexican divorce. Joe Kennedy Jr. called off the engagement because he didn’t want any scandal getting in the way of his going to the White House. He was shot down in the war so that put an end to his presidential plans.

Act II takes place several years later in the same Hampton mansion but it is totally derelict, cat and flee infested with a few of Little Edie’s raccoons added. Mother and daughter bicker, fight and remain with each other. Little Edie is her mother’s care giver. Little Edie threatens to leave her but she never does. Big Edie is mostly bed ridden and depends on Little Edie for everything. In any case Big Edie complains, chides, bickers, criticizes her daughter and constantly lobs insults, and demands that Little Edie wait on her. Little Edie replies with a resigned, “Yes, Mother darling.”

The Production. Set designer, Camellia Koo has created the stylish big mansion of Grey Gardens in 1941 with its long staircases that go up three floors. Only one staircase is used and so no one goes higher than the second floor. For 1941 there is a grand piano, rich furnishings and a clear sense of money. This world is brightly lit by Bonnie Beecher’s lighting.

Squalid Grey Gardens is equally impressive. It’s full of junk, piles of old newspapers, open cans of cat food, etc. This is dimly lit because of course there is little money to pay for such luxury as light.

Director Ann Hodges sets up the dual times by having the first scene seem like a memory, with various characters in the Beale ladies’ story stand on the staircase, in shadow, like fading memories. Downstage right is Little Edie (Lisa Horner) in a head covering and an ensemble that is bizarre. Downstage left in bed, is her dishevelled mother, Big Edie (Nicola Lipman) wearing a wide-brimmed hat and rumpled, probably soiled dressing gown and night gown. Kudos to Alex Amini for the costumes.

Then in further shadow characters come up behind Little Edie and help her transform out of her odd costume of the ‘present’ and into one for the stylish year of 1941. In a wonderful slight of hand, Lisa Horner plays Big Edie in 1941 and Little Edie years later in the crumbling mansion. For Act II there is the same smooth transition of Horner from Big Edie to Little Edie, complete with head covering and odd fashion sense.

The eye-popping eccentricities of Big and Little Edie of course start with Doug Wright’s book and then are further illuminated in Scott Frankel’s music and Michael Korie’s lyrics. Wright is no stranger to ‘the strange.’ He wrote the play, I Am My Own Wife about a celebrated transvestite who lived in Germany during the Nazis and the Communists; and he wrote Quills about the Marquis de Sade. Writing about the eccentric Big and Little Edie Beale is familiar territory for Wright. He captures their distinctive bickering, their terms of endearment, shows their love/hate relationship clearly and makes you care about them.

Scott Frankel’s music and Michael Korie’s lyrics also reflect the pair’s loopy, tenuous hold on reality. As the musical form has evolved and changed over the years, one shouldn’t expect lilting tunes and easy poetry to reflect complex, cantankerous characters in our world, today.

In Grey Gardens the songs of Act I reflect an easier time, with melodic music and simple lyrics. The one’s of Act II, when the Beales have lost everything but each other and their 52 casts, the music is disjointed, the lyrics jagged. “The Revolutionary Costumes for Today” sung by Lisa Horner as Little Edie, is a torrent of ideas and words to describe Little Edie’s quirky fashion sense. Horner sings it in a commanding, compelling way. When she plays Big Edie in Act I, Horner is the grande dame of the house, confident but with a touch of concern. There is trouble in the marriage. Her father thinks she’s a fool. I get a sense of Mama Rose in Gypsy, a woman who wanted a more famous life and was thwarted by her father.

As Little Edie in Act II Horner reflects there is further angst. She longs to escape. She is desperate for something better. It won’t come. Her entertainment is fighting with her mother and caring for her.

As Big Edie, Nicola Lipman is dishevelled, has a sense of propriety in spite of the squalor and has a certain grace. She is resigned. She will never leave Grey Gardens. But she knows she will always be taken care of by Edie.

As Young Little Edie in Act I, Kira Guloien is buoyant when she contemplates her future marriage to Joe Kennedy Jr. and also wants to be a Broadway star. But she is ground down by her aggressive, competitive mother.

As Joe Kennedy Jr. Jeff Lillico is boyish, patrician, and quietly commanding. Victor A. Young as Major Bouvier, is a voice of reason that his daughter and granddaughter don’t want to hear. He has humour, a gruff but charming manner and you can feel his total frustration at having to deal with his family.

Comment. Acting Up Stage Company has brought challenging, envelope pushing musicals to Toronto for years. Grey Gardens is the latest one. In this age of celebrity worship, love of scandal, desperation to be famous and noticed, Grey Gardens is timely and well worth a visit.

Acting Up Stage Company in association with producing partners Linda and Chris Montague.

Opened: Feb.22, 2016.
Closes: March 6, 2016.
Cast: 9; 4 men, 5 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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